Dwindling literary skills

Tutors at medical schools are becoming concerned that the new generation of doctors may be losing their literary skills. The reason for this surprising situation is the increasing use of multiple-choice questions and short answers in examinations: the essay-style paper is often a thing of the past.

I find this disturbing, especially at a time when the teaching of communication skills is so central to the curriculum. We have to remember that medical communication isn't just between doctor and patient, but between doctor and doctor: the research paper, the article, the referral letter and the subsequent response from the consultant unit are all vital to good medical practice.

Nor do erudition and communication skills necessarily go hand in hand.

Sir Alexander Fleming's momentous paper on the discovery of penicillin was delivered in such a dull manner that as a result it almost failed to convey its subject matter. The most unreadable textbook I ever came across (Hamilton, Boyd and Mossman on embryology) was similarly sleep-inducing - a model of knowledge and scholarship that never used a simple word where three long and complicated ones could be substituted. I never did get to the end of it, but the pictures were good.

Sadly, the teaching of written communication is almost completely neglected in medical schools.

Certainly, students are taught which facts to include in referral letters, but not how to write succinctly and unambiguously. Yet uncomplicated language and clear sentence structure are key factors in communicating information securely from the printed page into the reader's brain.

And if you don't believe me, consider this: if GPs rank medical journals and papers in order of importance, then the BMJ and Lancet come top, with the free medical papers at the bottom. Now, ask the same people which journals they actually read, and the list gets turned upside down, with GP among the most popular. Why? Because the high quality of writing and level of communication in the free newspapers is relevant and well-crafted.

Communication skills don't begin and end with the consultation. For doctors they extend to the whole of our professional lives. In the world of medical tuition, the lack of teaching on written communication skills is a sad omission.

- Dr Lancelot is a GP from Lancashire. Email him at GPcolumnists@haynet.com.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register

Already registered?

Sign in

Follow Us:

Just published

A day in the life of a prison GP

A day in the life of a prison GP

Dr Patrick Staite tells GP Jobs what it is like to work as a prison GP.

GP practice list size up nearly 50% since 2004 contract

GP practice list size up nearly 50% since 2004 contract

The average GP practice list in England has increased by almost half since the new...

Fresh calls to scrap Capita contract as more cervical screening failures emerge

Fresh calls to scrap Capita contract as more cervical screening failures emerge

The BMA has renewed calls for NHS England to strip Capita of its primary care support...

Cost-effectiveness of GP at Hand 'challenging' to assess, interim report warns

Cost-effectiveness of GP at Hand 'challenging' to assess, interim report warns

The cost-effectiveness of the Babylon GP at Hand service will be difficult to determine...

How we improved end-of-life care in our practice

How we improved end-of-life care in our practice

Dr Victoria Middleton explains how her practice has increased the number of patients...

12,000-patient practice forced to close after service charge hike

12,000-patient practice forced to close after service charge hike

A 12,000-patient GP practice in Nottinghamshire has been forced to hand back its...